Monday, May 30, 2011

The Tree of Life

If The Tree of Life is to be taken as the personal statement that it seems to want to aspire to (and that everyone writing about it seems to take it as) then we can probably conclude that Terrence Malick’s childhood in Texas in the ‘40s and ‘50s was a wholly unremarkable affair that evoked nothing so much as those shopworn images that have come to signify “growing-up-in-the-heartland” as filtered through a half-decade’s worth of films and television. The crux of Malick’s latest film is an hour-and-a-half stream of glimpses of this coming-of-age, focusing on the oldest of three young brothers in Waco and his relationship with his disciplinarian Navy-man father and earthy, saintly mother. Moving his camera up close to his characters, relying on wide-angle lenses to supplement his off-kilter compositions and replacing dialogue with a soundtrack that ranges from ambient drones to opera, Malick attempts to make strange the “archetypal” images of childhood. Those who swear by the director will no doubt claim that by showing us the familiar through a deliberately estranging aesthetic, Malick makes the quotidian unfamiliar and thus, given his obviously spiritual orientation, sacred. Those less inclined to be generous might note that the central section of Tree is a mass of clichés: a baby being born to adoring parents mesmerized by his tiny foot, kids roughhousing in the front yard, a long-suffering mother long suffering, but Malick’s aestheticizing and the fact that all these scenes are depicted in small impressionistic glimpses simply cover up for the fact that what the director’s really given us is a gallery of shopworn images that aim to universalize the particular, in this case one white boy’s by-the-book boyhood in the middle of the last century.

But holiness is the theme here, as frequent invocations to God and family – all breathed in a pseudo-profound whisper – make clear, and out of nowhere the eldest boy, now grown up into a successful architect, recites an invocation to his boyhood, which leads to Malick employing a cosmic display of the earth’s origins as an introduction to that kid’s childhood and following it up with a glimpse of his adult self being transported from a glass skyscraper in Dallas to what feels like a mental defective’s view of some mythic spiritual plane where he’s reunited with his family. It’s a regressive vision to say the least: in Malick’s world, a man can only be fulfilled by convening cosmically with his not particularly happy past, but our director is ever the nostalgist, so long as that nostalgia isn’t troubled by the pesky demands of particularizing details. In his takedown of the film, Robert Koehler smartly remarked that Malick “has fatally forgotten the wisdom that in the specific lies the universal.” Instead the filmmaker takes a top-down approach to spirituality that results in a generic set of circumstances being worked into an underimagined framework. We know nothing about this family or their Waco surroundings – except that they travel to the black part of town to buy brisket – and we don’t really need to know more. Bringing up questionable dichotomies between grace and nature via voice-over helps little. These people are simply clichéd props to deliver Malick’s increasingly out-of-touch vision of dubious spiritualism.


My reviews of two documentaries, Rejoice and Shout and The Last Mountain have been posted at Slant Magazine.


Erich Kuersten said...

God, this sounds worse than it looks, I hated Thin Red Line for much the same reasons - your description of top-down spirituality and forgetting that in the specific lies the universal is spot on my brother. Good work!

andrew schenker said...

Thanks, Erich! I'm not a big THIN RED LINE fan either, but this is definitely worse.

Marlene said...

I was thinking that I was the only person to hate this movie by the pseudo-profound approach full of clichés. I also hated the whisppering voice and the clear attempt to be spiritual and more than the movie is able to translate. I could not agree more with your review.
I only disagree with the would be less generous and grade the movie as an F (worst than making a bad movie is making a bad pretentious movie)

Maverick Nguyen said...

Hi, I'm a Slant's regular reader. As I looked into Slant's entry "25 Best Films of 2011", I was a bit puzzled by the absence of Tree of Life and Certified Copy on your ballot(seems like they were everyone's favorite). Now that I have read this, I do feel satisfied. I am still a fan of Tree of Life, but your assessment of the film is very solid, and hard to rebuke also. But what about Certified Copy? Any comment on whether you like or dislike it? For me, it seems to encompass almost everything that is expected from a great work of art (ambiguity, elusiveness, elation, sadness, etc.) Not sure what you think about it?

andrew schenker said...

Hi Maverick,

Yes, seems I was one of the few who didn't put Tree of Life and Certified Copy on my best of list for Slant. As for CC, I've seen it twice, I admire it plenty, but for me, the switch halfway through and what comes after doesn't quite work. I'm actually hard-pressed to say exactly why it doesn't come off for me, but I definitely like the first half of the movie a good deal.